Materials Specialist David Little joins North Design Team
North’s recently updated foil and wing range benefitted from the design prowess wielded by some pretty key players operating under the wider North Sails umbrella, a company highly visible in the recent America’s Cup held in Auckland, which also happens to be North’s backyard. Integral to the team is North Materials Innovation Project Leader, David Little.
As featured in "WING COMMANDER DAVID LITTLE", THE FOILING MAGAZINE, ISSUE 8
New Zealand seems like a hotbed of wing and foil development at the moment. What's making it the perfect incubator for the emerging sport?
I think there are quite a few reasons. The country has a really high proportion of passionate water people, and it offers a wide range of wind and water conditions in a small area. The coast is 15,000km long and you are never further than 130km from the ocean. The weather is nice enough to test there all year round productively, and innovation is also part of the culture. The country is a long way from anywhere, so you get time to think, and it's costly to import, so there are drivers from both ends. You also have easy access to a lot of skills relevant to wing and foil sports.
People are drawn to NZ from many different countries, and they bring composites skills, design understanding, sailmaking, and all to an exceptionally high standard. Kiwis are also really good at remote working around the globe – something which has been extra useful in the last year. North has a broad multinational and multiskilled team. I'm based in San Francisco despite my Kiwi roots, and I work out of my man lab at home. We draw on design, technical and manufacturing resources from throughout the network of our parent company North Technology Group and sister company, North Sails. Our sports are all about being in tune with our environment, but this experience is enhanced by using the best materials and designing them to be as lightweight, responsive, refined and durable as possible. We can also use IT to iterate the innovation loop faster as well. We're on a mission to build innovative wings, foils and kites in ways that improve your enjoyment of these sports. Who knows where it might lead?
What's your background in the America's Cup, and how has this knowledge transferred to developing wing products for North?
The America’s Cup is an extraordinary event – it's like Formula 1 racing on water. It exposes you to the best of the best and some very creative people and all in the sea environment. Many of the AC team members are enthusiastic kiters, wingers and foilers, so there is much more direct crossover than you might think. We might spend our day jobs thinking about refining a foiling sailboat, but we spend our spare time thinking about how to apply that technology to our after-hours foiling fun.
I've worked on America's Cup race teams, mainly on the sail side. I started in 1999 with the Japanese team and have completed six America's Cups back-to-back, latterly with Oracle, Team USA. It gives you a culture of innovation. We would always be trying to increase performance, and the details really matter. We were working to build things lighter; to make the materials work harder and more precisely. Leaving enough to get the design performance but no more than enough, so parts aren't overweight. Sails, sail battens, sail reinforcement, water-shedding coatings, storage bags – they all got the treatment – constant micro-improvements. They are such rapidly developing programs and fortunately really well funded, so that innovation is fast – something that was needed when foiling came along.
In North, we have access to the composites guys and equipment that designed and built many of the carbon parts for the foiling 72- foot monohulls that just raced in Auckland. One of the sail designers for Ineos is a core part of our windsurf and wind wing shape design programme. Uli Sommerlatt, our Product Manager, engineered and built foiling boats before he embraced his current role. How many people have ready access to a range of pressurised autoclaves to cure parts in? We do.
The America’s Cup is about advanced materials – carbon fibre, Dyneema, Kevlar, glues and foams, and often how they all work together. Our backgrounds can bring these in a practical way to the wing, foil and kite business. One thing that's different though is the available budget. In America's Cup, where budgets are millions of dollars, cost is virtually irrelevant. For our sports, where we are paying from our own pockets, cost is rather more important. So we also need to find ways to apply the technology in cost-effective ways. That is often part of the challenge. The great thing about North is we have both the scale and the expertise to make materials in house. That lets us get to cost points that others can't. In some ways it's early days, but my goal is to create unique materials that really benefit the rider at a price people can afford. Then we can integrate that technology across sailing, kiting and wing foiling.
Cool. With that in mind, you recently released the Nova wing and it’s had a great response. How has it been building the first wing, and do you think that wing design will change as the sport divides itself into more clear disciplines?
Our chief kite and wing designer, Pat Goodman, has been able to draw from his vast knowledge to produce the Nova wing. In years gone by, Pat was also deeply into windsurf and glider design. The wings really draw on all of these skills, as well of course as Pat's legendary attention to detail. We have also involved Steve Calder (a North Sails Design Engineer who foil kites), and the two of them have been collaborating about the technical direction that the disciplines will need in the future. I think everyone is new to wing foiling; the sport is so new. People are only just understanding how the wings themselves work and what the features (LE size, taper, sweep, dihedral, anhedral, stiffness, recovery etc) bring to the party. I am sure we will see different things emphasized for the different disciplines in due time.
Window placement and downwind vision seems to be a tricky design choice for brands. How have you approached it?
There is debate as to whether you need them, but we believe windows are pretty handy as it's no fun running into something or some- one at the speeds you foil at. We have done and are doing more work on window materials specifically. It would be really nice to have something lighter, which didn't give up such engineering performance as the present window materials. Our work here is still secret at present, but hopefully, it will make a real difference when it comes out.
Are the materials currently available a limiting factor in inflatable wing design at the moment?
At the moment, I think they can be. It's a balancing act between the performance and cost, and we haven't got that aligned right yet. To get the most out of a wing, you need to have low-elongation (stretch), but that can't be at the sacrifice of durability. Dacron is quite durable, but it is not the stiffest material, and because of its finish, it does soften over time. Also, if you go too light on materials, they can tear, and this is an issue with wings because you tend to land on top of them when you fall, and they are closer to the surf and the foil.
We are bringing some of our sailing materials expertise to the wings. This lets us get extra stiffness for no sacrifice in durability. People launch from boat ramps and off rocks and ride skateboards in car parks, so wings need a lot more scuff protection where they encounter hard surfaces. The other danger, of course, is sharp hydrofoil wings puncturing the materials...
The inflated structure also presents some unique challenges (as it does for kites). Getting durable seams and controlling the effect of the inflation pressure on the stretch is critical. You can get a lot of energy release that can be hard to control – while at the same time, you want to lock up the energy using stiff materials. It is undoubtedly a challenge. I have done work with high-pressure inflatable battens and aero fairings for America's Cup, and this experience has been coming in handy.
Where do you see wing foiling heading in five years?
I think it will move into more defined disciplines – freeride, lightwind, surf, freestyle, and also racing. Material development often finds its way to racing first, so I always have one eye on that. However, we know from our other businesses that the racing pedigree beneficially crosses over to other aspects of the sport. Lightweight, powerful de- signs that last longer and are cost-effective to buy are desirable in all the different disciplines.
Did you get to see any of the America’s Cup boats in action?
While in NZ at the beginning of the year, I did go out and watch some practice racing on the North Sails chase boat. It was impressive and super interesting – you could see teams’ performances im- proving day by day during racing – actually almost minute by minute. After Luna Rossa Italy beat INEOS Team UK, they stepped it up another level to race Emirates Team NZ – and it was great to see them do that and to win some races.
This was my first AC since 2000 when I wasn't working for one of the teams. I toured the INEOS base, and it was interesting to see their set up, but it looked like there was a lot of work and late nights going on! It was ok not to be involved this time around. I really enjoyed my time working in the Cup because of the competitive factor and the team environment. I always liked that there was an end goal, three years to get on the start line, so you better make decisions quick. But it's been great to move onto kite and wing foil development. The things I learnt apply very directly, and it's a license to try new things.
So there is that same sense of evolution?
Yes. I think winging and foiling are already developing at similar speeds to the America's Cup. We don't have the same cash resources as the AC Teams, but the parts are so much smaller we don't need those cash resources so the innovation loop is much faster. Much of the work has been done inside North already; we just need to adapt it to wings and kites...
We are able to use the same design tools that the teams have developed, and it has always been part of the North culture that America's Cup ideas are flowed down through the rest of the business for all of our customer benefit. I'm sure we will find foiling know-how from the just-completed America’s Cup in the gear we ride sooner than we think. North's products will certainly contain some, and I suspect others will too.